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Among the numerous examples of the disappearance of civility from Washington political discourse, probably none is as despicable as the GOP’s effort to brand Democrats who oppose President Bush’s judicial nominees as “anti-Catholic” or “anti-Christian.” This concerted campaign, engaged in by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and major figures in the Republican Party, must stop. Indeed, we hope it backfires.

We believe Democrats have gone too far in using the filibuster to block several of Bush’s nominees, but that excess comes nowhere near justifying Hatch’s tactics in turning the Democrats’ opposition into a religious matter. Nor does it justify the ads taken out by the Committee for Justice, headed by former White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, accusing Democrats of being anti-Catholic for opposing one particular nominee, Alabama Attorney General William Pryor.

Addressing the Christian Coalition’s national conference in 2002, Hatch declared, “My fear is that the Democrats are voting down judges based on their religious views. We are left to wonder whether any serious Southern Baptist such as Judge [Charles] Pickering … or a person of faith such as Justice Priscilla Owen … will ever be confirmed to America’s judiciary by a Democrat-led Senate.” He also charged that opposition to such judges by the liberal group People for the American Way was based on “anti-religious bigotry.”

When Pryor’s nomination came before Hatch’s Judiciary Committee, the chairman pursued his strategy by asking the nominee to identify his religion — Pryor is Roman Catholic — setting the table for Gray’s group to mount an ad campaign in which a sign is posted on a courtroom door reading, “Catholics Need Not Apply.” After the ads first ran in Maine and Rhode Island, Gray appeared defensive and embarrassed when interrogated on several television shows about playing the “religious card.” But he is evidently beneath embarrassment — the ads are now scheduled to run in three Roman Catholic newspapers.

This is obviously a political campaign designed to keep conservative Protestant and Catholic voters in the Republican column. But it’s also an ugly and false campaign. It led, for example, to a charge on C-SPAN by the executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition that Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.) “has never met a Christian that he likes. He is the one of the most anti-Christian Members of Congress.”

Opposition to Bush’s nominees has nothing whatsoever to do with religion. Leahy and other Democrats opposing Pryor are Roman Catholics themselves. Their opposition is based on ideology and politics. Hatch and the GOP can justifiably claim that Democrats are imposing an “abortion litmus test” on nominees. But to brand Senators as anti-Catholic is simply sleazy, and voters should hold those who do it accountable.

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